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InFashion: Enter the mentor

InFashion: Enter the mentor

When Yves Saint Laurent was merely 18, he came to work with the legendary Christian Dior. It was under Dior’s mentorship that the designer embarked on a career that was going to become the stuff of legends. “He taught me the basis of my art,” Yves was known to say. When his mentor died abruptly in 1957, Yves succeeded him as the art director at Dior.

Mentorship, veritably, is the predominant force that spurs any industry forward, allowing the passing on of a well-honed skill set and business know-how to younger, talented contenders. In the case of fashion, it is imperative. For fashion’s glossy bubble particularly runs the risk of inflating to ego-centric proportions and if allowed to drift off without proper guidance, it is likely to burst. Known veterans happily become accustomed to winning all the laurels for themselves while younger, lesser-connected ateliers get sidelined.




But without fresh competition, even the top echelons run the risk of stagnating. Designers need to eventually retire but their legacies need to live on in the form of younger aspirants that they have guided and trained. Sarah Burton masterfully continued her friend and mentor Alexander McQueen’s work when the designer took his own life. Coco Chanel took on board jeweller Fulco di Verdura who went on to design accessories for Chanel before embarking on his own label, and American journalist Kate Betts credits Vogue’s Anna Wintour as her mentor.

These were the examples that flitted through the mind when designer Hassan Shehryar Yasin announced his plans for an HSY Mentorship Programme (HMP). Pakistan’s nascent fashion industry can hardly be compared to its gargantuan global counterpart and yet, it’s a business that’s wielding profits, catching people’s attention and persistently growing despite impediments. Helming the industry has been a milieu of veterans, designers who understand craft, silhouette and the particular requirements of the local customer. Young designers, fresh out of fashion schools, may have a grasp over their skills but can benefit considerably from the experience of their seniors.

“I’ve been in this business for 24 years and this is something that I just want to do,” explained HSY in a special press-meet organised at his mansion in Karachi. “We want to identify a group of up-and-coming designers every year and help them understand the nuances of the business and design. These may be young graduates or a label that is yet to make a mark. We won’t be charging them and, in fact, designers in the programme who don’t have the means to support themselves will be funded for the time that they are with us. If later they want to start up their own businesses, we will also try to financially help them with that.”

The topmost floor of the HSY ‘mansion’ — his location in Karachi dedicated to taking bespoke orders for couture and also his temporary residence for when he visits the city — will be allotted to HMP.

It seems to be a very altruistic plan — and one that may take up quite a bit of Shero’s time. The designer wears many hats: couturier, show director and overall showman. Now, as mentor, he may have to set aside some of his other projects. The HMP may also require him to fork out considerable cash. “We’re willing to make that effort,” he shrugs. “I already have so many donors lined up. Many of them are people who have invested in fashion and want to see it progress. I don’t have a course outline planned out. I just basically want to answer questions, give guidelines, let these designers into my world and learn along the way. It’s my way of giving back.”

Should it work out, it will be a commendable endeavour. And it’s a path that other established designers also need to take. How else will creative bona fide fashion move forward?

This is a point that has often been emphasised by Karachi’s fashion scion Maheen Khan. A motley crew of the country’s young sparks have worked with Maheen at some time or the other — among them Nomi Ansari, Adnan Pardesy, Sadaf Malaterre and accessory designer Mahin Husain. “After two years, I tell them to leave and start working on their own,” laughs Maheen. “It is very important for designers to take young people on-board and share one’s knowledge with them rather than treat them as mere employees. I feel proud of every designer who had once worked with me and has now launched out successfully on their own.”

Another significant powerhouse spurring fashion forward is Sehyr Saigol, the chairperson of the Pakistan Fashion Design Council (PFDC). Sehyr has allowed focus to move away from her own label Libas while she works on strengthening her council and placing the spotlight on new designers year after year. Some have promise, others don’t. The former usually return to the PFDC’s platform while the latter fade out. One can almost see Sehyr fine-tuning the young lot as certain labels progress to better finishings and more coherent signatures.

“Mrs Saigol’s expertise is invaluable,” says Zonia Anwaar, a fledgling designer who has become a regular participant in the PFDC’s fashion weeks. “She has an eye for what will work in a collection and even while she gives out advice, she keeps telling me that ultimately, I have to decide what I want to show on the catwalk.”

According to Sehyr, she thinks that it is only natural that more established professionals should help out new entrants in the field. “I really believe that fashion can only have a future in Pakistan if we help younger, newer designers make a mark,” she explains. “I don’t just go about helping everybody but if I see that a designer has spark and is willing to work hard, I am there to guide them along the way. A lot of young graduates emerge from fashion schools with their heads up in the clouds and artistic notions that would never work in the real world. They need to be brought down to earth and trained in what customers will want to buy. In my effort to improve standards at our fashion weeks, I have let my own label go into the background and I probably will let it diminish even more as my work continues.”

There are other veterans who can be identified for having passed on skills to their interns and employees. A number of stylists have emerged from Nabila’s N-Pro team, proceeding to build their own careers. Altaf who went on to set up ‘Altaf the Salon’ down the street from Nabila’s N-Pro in Karachi, and Adnan Ansari has gone on to become a stylist to the stars. A current favourite within N-Pro is Tabesh Khoja, trained and tutored by Nabila and now a mainstay at any major event where he adeptly looks over the backstage styling.

Recently, following her 10th win at the Lux Style Awards, Nabila announced that she would no longer be partaking in awards ceremonies, opting instead to mentor deserving talent and creating work opportunities for them.

Partnering with the Hunar Foundation, the stylist is also soon to embark on a vocational training programme where she will be providing hair and makeup training free of cost to women who may then go on to open their own businesses or work in established salons. Once again, should the plan work, it shows the way ahead for fashion and styling.  

In a similar vein, the iconic Tariq Amin is launching an academy of his own this year in Bahria Town Islamabad, where he will be training professionals on how to cater to the local market. Over the course of his career, Tariq’s provided a springboard to quite an extensive troupe of well-known stylists, including Mubashir Khan, Natasha Saigol, Rukaiyya Adamjee, Nina Lotia and Shaheen Saeed.

It’s all very commendable but it’s hardly enough. For every veteran who benevolently passes on skills, there are many others who prefer to rule the roost. Within fashion’s concentric circle, one perpetually hears horror stories of how younger designers are sidelined by the big guns.

Here’s an example that people in the know are well aware of: some years ago, a very talented young graduate joined the design team of an established label and proceeded to help them with a stellar fashion week showcase. The reviews lauded the collection, as well as this new designer. Predictably, just a few days later, an official press release was sent by this young designer claiming to have had not been involved in the collection at all. Reading between the lines, the label’s ego couldn’t tolerate another walking off with the accolades, even if this individual was now part of their design team.

This young designer is no longer working with this label and yet, refuses to comment on the debacle. Everyone ends up working with everyone else in local fashion and lambasting one another publicly can spell eventual career slide.

Still, it highlights the need for genuine mentoring of designers who have talent and are willing to work hard. When egos come into play, they easily thwart the growth of an industry that has only barely managed to scramble on to its feet. It is yet to break into a run.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, December 11th, 2016

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